Monday, September 18, 2006

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently picked up Andrew Douglas' Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. I am always on the lookout for depictions of strange sociology, so this skewed tour through the backwaters of the South appealed to me. Our guide is Jim White, a musician who has gained some notoriety for his appropriation of Southern culture. He kicks off the film by suggesting that the filmmaker rent a beat-up old muscle car for the trip. This, he suggests, will help encourage the locals to expose their hearts.

White explains up front that he was born in Southern California, and dragged to the South as a child. He tells us that he loathed his transplant status. After some time traveling, he returned to discover the beauty he had missed as a child. Despite his new-found love, the best he can hope for is to become a good imitation of a Southerner. While this could easily turn into a form of condescension or exploitation, it's not hard to be convinced of his sincerity. He exudes Southern folksiness and charm, and yet is powerfully drawn to its dark gothic side.

Particularly interesting sections include scenes filmed inside a prison, in a honky-tonk, at a holy-rolling truckstop and in various Pentacostal churches. Images of writhing white folks spouting glossalalia were transfixing. I could have sat through twice the amount of the already substantial footage of Southern worship. This is clearly a population obsessed with the twin prospects of Heaven and Hell. As White points out, in the South everyone makes a choice between doing good or doing bad. There's not a whole lot of nuance or moral relativity in this culture. Do you serve Jesus or Satan? The poverty of much of this region leaves many with very little else to choose from.

The approach White and Douglas take to their subjects is so personal and stylized that I hesitate to call this a "proper" documentary. Your enjoyment depends upon your willingness to take this ride with them. The live appearances of performing friends can be a bit jarring to whatever realism exists in the film. And who are these folks? David Johansen from the New York Dolls? 16 Horsepower... The Handsome Family... While I enjoyed all the music to one extent or another, I had to wonder whether this music truly represented the people chosen to appear in the film. A glaring example of possible misstep seemed to me to be the inclusion of a Cat Power song in the beginning. Never for a moment will I consider Chan Marshall to be Southern kinfolk.

Despite these reservations, I was not unhappy that I bought the DVD. It is filmed beautifully, truly capturing the essence that is referred to by its people as "God's Country". It made me think that once you get past the politics, the people, and the community... it is truly the land that lends a region's personal god his/her essential quality. This is wild country, and that has its reflection on its people and their way of life. So maybe this isn't the most objective or realistic portrayal... its impressionism and atmosphere bespeak of a truth beyond "mere fact". The subject of this film is the mythology of the South... and that's potentially more powerful than straightforward documentation.

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